Foreign students returning to US, but below pre-Covid levels

International students are returning to US colleges in greater numbers this year, but the rebound to last year’s historic decline is yet to be made as Covid-19 continues to disrupt academic exchange, according to a new survey.

Nationwide, US colleges and universities saw a 4% annual increase in international students this fall, according to survey results released Monday by the International Institute of Education. But that’s after a 15% decrease last year – the biggest drop since the institute began publishing the data in 1948.


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The summer season is better than predicted by many colleges as the delta version has increased. But it also reflects continuing constraints as visa backlogs persist and as some students show reluctance to study abroad during the pandemic. Universities and US officials expect this year’s rally to be the start of a longer-term rebound. As international travel increases, there is optimism that colleges will see growth beyond their pre-pandemic levels.

“We expect a surge after the pandemic,” Matthew Luisenhope, an acting US assistant secretary of state, told reporters. This year’s growth indicates that international students “value American education and remain committed to studying in the United States,” he said.

Overall, 70% of US colleges reported this drop in international students, according to the institute, while 20% saw a drop and 10% remained level. This is based on a preliminary survey of over 800 US schools. The nonprofit plans to release the full nationwide data next year.

At least some of the increase has been due to new students who had hoped to come to the US last year but delayed their plans because of the pandemic. All told, there was a 68% increase in newly enrolled international students this year, a dramatic increase compared to last year’s decrease of 46%.

For many schools, even a small increase is a matter of relief. Over the summer, officials at US universities worried that the delta version would dash any hopes of a rebound. But for many people this did not happen.

In August, US embassies and consulates in India reported that they had recently issued visas to a record 55,000 students, even after starting the process two months late due to COVID-19. Embassies in China reported that they had issued 85,000 student visas.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more than 10,000 international students enrolled this fall, a drop of about 28% from the previous year.

“What we are seeing now is a return to normalcy for our international population,” said Andy Borst, director of graduate admissions at the university. The rebound is fueled by new undergraduates, with people from India at around 70% above pre-pandemic levels.

“We just had this suppressed demand,” Borst said. “Many Big Ten schools saw higher growth than we expected.”

Enrollment in some big-brand schools abroad surpassed 2019 figures. According to school data, more than 17,000 international students enrolled at New York University, a 14% increase compared to 2019.

At the University of Rochester, another top destination for international students in New York, enrollment from overseas increased by 70% over 2019 levels driven by a boom in graduate students, according to school data.

Jennifer Blask, the university’s head of international admissions, said most students were able to arrive on campus within the first weeks of the semester, but many were dealing with visa backlogs at US embassies and consulates, not to mention costly flights and cancellations. .

This fall most US colleges return to in-person learning, but not all international students are physically on campus. Following last year’s transition to distance learning, many schools continue to offer online classes to students abroad, allowing thousands to enroll remotely.

Of all international students enrolled in US colleges this year, the survey found that nearly 65% ​​were taking classes on campus.

For Chinese students unable to come for this semester, NYU is letting them use its academic center in Shanghai, which has traditionally housed American students studying abroad. The university last year allowed international students to use its London and Abu Dhabi locations, but has since reverted them to use for study abroad.

For some colleges, the new flexibility of online learning helped avoid further enrollment shocks. In the past, University of San Francisco students may have been able to start tenure a week late if they encountered visa or travel problems. Now, those facing visa delays can come halfway or later, and study abroad online in the meantime.

Facing travel restrictions inside Vietnam, graduate students were unable to reach Ho Chi Minh City’s airport in time for the start of Vinh Le Fall classes. Instead, he studied online for more than two months until he got his first vaccine shot, which allowed him to travel.

Taking classes online was challenging because of the time difference, he said, but the professor was “very helpful” and recorded his lectures for anyone to see at any time. He made it on November 1 at the University of San Francisco.

International students are seen as a significant contributor to US campuses for a number of reasons. Colleges say they help provide a diverse mix of cultures and ideas on campus. Many end up working in high-demand fields after graduation. And some colleges rely on the financial benefits of international students, who are typically charged higher tuition rates.

Although many colleges have avoided the second year of decline, there is concern that the upswing may be isolated to some types of colleges. The new survey found that, last year, community colleges suffered a much greater decline than four-year universities, with a 24% backslide nationwide.

Researchers are still analyzing this year’s data, but some worry that community colleges may be left behind.

There are also questions about whether the rebound will continue this year. New vaccine requirements for foreign travelers may make it difficult for some students to get here, and colleges are expecting continued competition from colleges in Australia, Canada and other countries to boost their international populations.

Still, officials at many colleges are optimistic. More vaccines are being shipped overseas, and newly lifted travel restrictions promise to ease barriers to travel. Some even credit President Joe Biden with sending the message that America wants students from abroad.

In July, the administration issued a statement promising a “renewed” commitment to international education, which it said would work to welcome foreign students.

Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy and legislative strategy for NAFSA, an international education association, said it was a change from the Trump administration.

“In the previous administration, there was a lot of negativity and negative rhetoric around international students,” Banks said. “Biden is now trying to telegraph to the world that international students are interested in coming here.”

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